A new grad’s dilemma: start-up or bigco?

Last night I attended a social mixer in San Francisco, attended several hundred young professionals representing alums from a bunch of schools.  It was the first one of these I’d attended up in San Francisco, and it did a lot of good to reinforce several of the impressions we’ve had of the Bay Area during the first year we’ve lived here.  People were really welcoming, social, and friendly.  Relatively less attitude than you’d likely find elsewhere.

As I was mingling, I got into several conversations with current undergrads, grad students and recent alums, which tended towards a similar theme around career management.  Namely: should I go to a big company or join a start-up?

The thing I’ve noticed as I’ve spoken to people with this question and as I’ve read advice about this on blogs and so forth is that there’s this rather stark line that gets drawn.

The narrative here is familiar.  Generally parents and other stakeholders who might be more risk averse tend to advocate strongly for the BigCo.  They rightly see the benefits of getting a brand on the resume, having a stable income, and building out a set of contacts and useful skills and experiences.  That the parents have often footed a hefty bill to get the kid through school, this urge is understandable.

On the other end, there are a host of bloggers and advice givers who advocate strongly that the absolute best time to work at a start-up is right out of school.  You’re young, your burn-rate’s low, you’ll learn, and you can always go to a bigger company later.

This approach reminds me a lot more of this, and in my view does a real disservice to the individual trying to make some hard and important decisions in his or her life.

So what’s the right answer–which makes more sense for a hungry young professional bouncing out of undergrad, grad school, or even a few years at something like consulting?

The only logical answer with something as individualized as your personal carer path is: it totally depends.  Having worked both in a big enterprise (Microsoft) and now currently at a start-up, I’d say both have benefits and opportunities.   Both can benefit you at different points in our career.  And different people can find either optimal at different points in her career.

The real question then is what makes sense for the person right now?  What are the most important and useful question to answer when thinking through which approach makes more sense given where one individual is right now?  This is a classic ‘no answers, just more questions’ type of thing, but at the end of the day, there are too many individualized situational factors to give a straight up or down answer.

With that in mind, here’s my attempt at putting together the best questions I can think of that will help someone thinking about which direction to head.  I’m coming at this assuming you have considering approaching companies that may be large or start-ups.   Specifically, I’m writing this as though I had an offer from both types of firms and these would be the questions I’d try to parse as it related to my own individual career management.  If you’re not getting answers to these questions, I’d suggest you should.

  1. At which company will you have a greater opportunity to learn new, useful things? Basically, the point here is to get really specific and concrete about what you’ll be on track to learn or experience over the course of a period of time.  Big companies will generally be able to articulate this to some level of concreteness, but definitely drill in on them.  Talk to others who’ve been there for a year or two and get a sense of what they think they’ve learned.  In smaller companies, ask the same question and press on this.   Know that small companies are by definition more fluid and may be less specific.  Still, beware of leaders who roll their eyes and say ‘we’re on a rocketship–you’ll learn what it’s like to go to the moon!!!”  (Unless you’re talking to Facebook and about 3 other start-ups of that ilk.)  In general though, if the start-up guy you speak to can’t at least fake some concrete, articulate things you might learn, then he may well be a coconut.  Working for coconuts at big companies or small companies is no fun and not good for your career–avoid.
  2. Find out who you’d likely be working for and determine his/her track record on people development. People development is a vital task for both big company and small company leaders.  Understanding very specifically who the person is and what their value systems are as it pertains to managing people and developing talent.  Some start-ups and high tech companies will make the case that they’re growing too fast to deal with people development.  This is bogus–if you hear this case being made, I’d count that as a big red flag.  You may decide to still work there, but do it with eyes open.
  3. Determine which business you’re more likely to run yellow lights to get to in the morning. At the end of the day, to build a great career, you’ve got to build a great track record.  To build a great track record, you’ve got to pay the piper–you’ve got to work hard.  I’d argue that to do great things you’ve got to love what you do to put in the dedicated time and passion to make it happen.  Given
  4. that, then the gut check of which company or which opportunity gets you more fired up is a simple but super important factor to weigh.  You and only you can answer this question.  No blogger and no parent can really take this on

    4. Finally, in which opportunity will you have an opportunity to build out a useful network of people.   One thing that’s become apparent in my time an entrepreneur–your network is super important.  I’ve been pretty shocked at how many people have been in Silicon Valley for decades and who know relatively few people.  Given the loosely coupled nature of getting companies going and started, etc., having a broad group of people that can help connect you with ideas, talent, and is massively important.  While you’d think there’d be a stock answer here–advantage small company–I don’t think there is.  The fact is that people who work at networking, whereever they are, do better than people who don’t.  Now I’m not saying be a LinkedIn troll or whatever, but definitely pay attention to the sense of how you’ll build connections in a given organiation.
    So those are my 4 basic questions that I’d suggest you answer as you weigh which opportnity–start-up or big co you might head down.  There are obviously a host of other important, relevant question around job role, salary, location, etc., which I’m not going to touch.  My sense is that those are the questions and factors everyone weighs.  The ones above are in my mind the ones that can help you sift through the many good ideas that are out there on guiding your career and hlep you start to make a good and well reasoned decision that will meet your own best personal interest.
    Cheers, and if i can be of any help, please reach out at jeremiah.s.jamison [at] gmail [dot] com.
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    1 Comment

    Filed under career management, mba career advice

    One response to “A new grad’s dilemma: start-up or bigco?

    1. Pingback: New Grad’s & Career Management in Down Times « leaving the flock

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